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  • “I’m just waiting until people look at an impressive carving and say “that’s a Prenzel” like they now identify Rembrandt or Picasso” – Phillip Caldwell

The search took him to the dusty rooftop of an old city building where, hidden behind several decrepit old chairs thrown carelessly in a corner, was a uniquely crafted masterpiece. Auctioneer Phillip Caldwell could not believe his eyes. “It was a magnificent creation – a one off produced as a commemorative furniture piece for the Australian Women’s National League to mark its founding in 1904,” he said. The fact that the ornately hand carved speaker’s chair had been made by iconic Australian artist Robert Prenzel only added considerably to its value.

The work is typical of Prenzel’s trademark creations. With waratah arm supports, a carved back panel featuring gum leafs and gum nuts and full size possum carvings either side of the speaker’s head, the chair bears testimony to the league’s first president Janet Lady Clarke. The league eventually evolved into the women’s section of the Victorian Liberal Party that still performs an active political role in today’s world. Not only did Phillip Caldwell discover the speaker’s chair, he also unearthed a Prenzel table in the arts and crafts style of famous English designer and furniture maker William Morris and three accompanying chairs with superb carved waratah and foliage decoration. These unusual Prenzel works will be part of a significant art, antiques and porcelain Caldwell auction from 11am Sunday at 3-7 Walker Street, Prahran and Phillip Caldwell was keen to pay tribute to his contribution to Australian art history. “Robert Prenzel was a brilliant Prussian craftsman who migrated to Melbourne in 1888, aged 22,” he said.

In the early 20th century he began grafting Australian floral and fauna motifs onto the flowing lines of the international art nouveau style capturing the mood and aspirations of a newly federated Australia. For 10 years, from 1905 to 1915, he was cabinetmaker by appointment to Melbourne and Western District society. Prenzel was born at Kittlitztreben in south east Prussia and, as a child, moved to Elbing (now Elblag, Poland), a seaport town on the Baltic Sea. At 14, he was apprenticed to the town carver, Ernst Gebauer, who Prenzel later described as a fine artist and splendid teacher. Gebauer suffered neither fools nor idlers at his benches so, for four years, Prenzel worked 10 hours a day six days a week studying all phases the mechanical and technical sides of his craft. After finishing his apprenticeship, Prenzel spent the next four years as a journeyman throughout Europe where he was exposed to the works of masters who further refined his technique. In the last half of the 19th century, Germany regarded Australia as a land of opportunity as several colonial governments actively wooed German settlers. Prenzel was one of these, arriving in “Marvellous Melbourne” on November 24, 1888 where he initially found work with a ship builder. However, it was not long before he met and was employed by Otto Waschatz, a Dresden born and trained modeller who supplied many of the elaborate plaster and cement decorations for the boom-style buildings of the late 1880s.

In 1891, Prenzel established a business with Danish ivory carver and turner Johann Christian Treede (Treede and Prenzel Architectural Carvers, Modellers and Designers) where they designed and made to order “artistic furniture in style”. Most of the furniture was in the elaborate Renaissance-revival style of their native Europe, but they also worked as contract carvers completing, amongst other works, the ceiling and upper walls of the west nave of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Treede and Prenzel dissolved their partnership in 1901 but Robert Prenzel carried on at the firm’s South Melbourne address creating essentially art nouveau pieces, following a style that had recently peaked in Europe. It was not until after World War I that his framed panels of Australian birds, animals and plant life became increasingly popular as Victorians gradually overcame their distrust of German migrants. Churches in particular knew the value of his carvings and ecclesiastical work became the mainstay of his business. Examples of his creations can still be seen at St John’s Toorak, Xavier College chapel and our Lady of Victories in Camberwell.

Prenzel’s work also is the subject of a permanent exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. Phillip Caldwell said he was just waiting for the day when people would look at an impressive wood carving and say with conviction “that’s a Prenzel” in the same way they now identify Rembrandt or Picasso. Sunday’s auction also will include an extensive pewter collection and early 17th century furniture belonging to Don Todd (of the well known Todd rowing dynasty) whose brother Ray won more than 70 rowing and sculling victories from 1918 to 1927